x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Season greeting a few welcome surprises in Premier League

Eighteen games into the Premier League, Richard Jolly looks at 10 things we have learned.

Manchester United and City have maintained Old Trafford's presence at the top of the table, so far.
Manchester United and City have maintained Old Trafford's presence at the top of the table, so far.

1. Anything that can happen in the summit clashes.

Manchester United 8, Arsenal 2 ... Manchester United 1, Manchester City 6 ... Chelsea 3, Arsenal 5. To have one such score line in a season would be unusual; to have all three in the space of a couple of months was incredible. Rather than the close, cautious affairs expected, they show that many of the elite sides have frailties and that their rivals are not slow to exploit them. They - and other matches such as City's 5-1 win at Tottenham and Spurs' 4-0 defeat of Liverpool - indicate that momentum in a match can swing quickly, decisively and dramatically. The meetings of the best have become games not to miss.

2. Attacks better than defences.

It is a fine time to be a striker. Robin van Persie is scoring at a remarkable rate, Wayne Rooney is prolific and the Manchester City trio of Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli all boast formidable records. And even outside the top teams, Demba Ba and Yakubu are enjoying outstanding seasons. In contrast, with Bolton and Blackburn leaking goals at an alarming rate and Chelsea and Arsenal conceding more in the opening dozen games than they have in an entire season, there are plenty of unflattering statistics. High defensive lines, slack set-piece marking and a lack of pressing are all contributory factors with the highest average number of goals per game since 1967/68, but there may just be more talented scorers and suppliers than stoppers.

3. The gulf between the top six and the rest is growing.

Newcastle United bridged the gap with their early-season excellence, but their subsequent struggle, partly because of a lack of strength in depth, is a more realistic indication of their prospects. Meanwhile, sales have weakened Everton and Aston Villa, often among the best of the rest, and Stoke, while progressing admirably, can be distracted by their European commitments. So far the elite half-dozen have only lost five games to their inferiors, and two of them were against Stoke at the Britannia Stadium. It is not quite the case that there are 14 teams simply aiming to avoid relegation, but it is harder for anyone else to break into the top six.

4. Manchester City are the real deal.

With a 100 per cent home record, with 5-1 and 6-1 away wins at Tottenham and Manchester United respectively, with record-breaking starts to the season in terms of both points accumulated and goals scored, Roberto Mancini's side made a huge step forward. Twelve months ago, the question was whether they could break into the top four; were they too defensive and too accident prone? Now neither criticism applies. Last year, they seemed over-reliant on Carlos Tevez. Now it matters not that the former captain has gone on strike and will be sold: Manchester City are better without him. No side has a stronger bench, either.

5. Arsenal were written off too quickly.

A club in crisis? A manager who was past his peak? A side who could end up in the lower half of the table? All theories floated after Arsenal's awful August. Now all look wildly inaccurate. Led by the talismanic Robin van Persie, Arsenal have taken 25 points from the last 30. Arsene Wenger's summer spending has had an impact and an injury-hit defence is no longer as porous. They still face a battle to finish in the top four for a 16th successive season but Arsenal's has been an outstanding response. Reports of their demise were grossly exaggerated.

6. Manchester United remain great competitors.

They have exited the Champions League embarrassingly early, been hammered 6-1 at home by their local rivals and, amid a series of other injuries, have lost their inspirational captain for the rest of the season. That could be the backdrop to a terrible league campaign. Instead Manchester United are flourishing in adversity. In almost any other season, their total of 42 points from 17 games would put them top. But United have a habit of turning up against the odds, and while there are legitimate questions about their lack of high-class, fit, specialist central midfielders and how the defence will cope in Nemanja Vidic's extended absence, they are providing the right answers.

7. All three promoted clubs could stay up.

It hasn't happened since 2001/02 when Fulham, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers all marked their arrival in the Premier League by securing a second successive season. Now Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Swansea City are threatening a repeat. The Swans have a formidable defensive record, especially at home, and a willingness to play their neat passing game against all-comers. Norwich, under the catalytic management of Paul Lambert, are the division's sixth-highest scorers and a resourceful side with a habit of striking late. QPR are in most danger, but they should also have the largest budget in the January transfer window. The chequebook could provide them with salvation.

8. There is no quick fix at Chelsea.

Andre Villas-Boas is attempting an overdue overhaul at Stamford Bridge, but when a result is required, Chelsea tend to revert to their past, aiming at Didier Drogba, rather than a diet of pressing, possession and a high defensive line the Portuguese espouses. The fear of dropping out of the top four outweighs the long-term need to move on and while, in Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge, Villas-Boas has changed two-thirds of the forward line, he no longer seems to trust Fernando Torres to be the central figure. The 34-year-old manager may yet prove an inspired appointment, but he will not take the title in his debut season in charge.

9. Spurs are certainly hot.

The last few years have been a fine time to support Spurs. Tottenham finished fourth two years ago and beat both Milanese clubs in the Champions League last season, but this is their best side yet. The August additions of Emmanuel Adebayor and Scott Parker have completed a formidable forward line and midfield, with Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart offering craft and Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon providing pace. If it is not to be a straight fight between the two Manchester clubs for the title, it will be because Spurs, last champions in 1961, have made it a three-horse race.

10. Blackburn are in complete chaos.

It has been a bleak time in Lancashire, with Wigan Athletic, Bolton and Blackburn occupying the three relegation places for much of the campaign. But while Roberto Martinez's side have rallied of late and Owen Coyle's Wanderers won last week's desperation derby at Ewood Park, Blackburn's plight simply gets worse. Lose at Anfield and Old Trafford and they will reach the halfway point of the season with 10 points. The manager, Steve Kean, is despised and desperately unsuccessful, but somehow retains his position, the entire club is demoralised and the injury-hit team cannot defend. It will be astonishing if they survive.




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